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As Alaska sees increased overdose rates coincide with pandemic, state says people can help solve crisis

Health department officials say two tools – Narcan and fentanyl test strips – could greatly decrease rates of deadly overdoses in Alaska
Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse an overdose by blocking opioid...
Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse an overdose by blocking opioid receptors.(Gray tv)
Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 9:14 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - National and local data show that drug overdose death rates have been rising for years. Now, however, public health officials in Alaska say they have seen an increase in overdoses that specifically coincides with the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are so many factors,” said Theresa Welton, the section chief for the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention within the Division of Public Health. “There was an increase in mental health issues, there was an increase in family stressors and trauma, reliving trauma, isolation. And being out of work is a big one.”

Recent numbers from Welton’s department show 15 fentanyl-involved deaths in 2019. That figure more than tripled in 2020 to 58 deaths.

That trend matches what was seen at the national level as well. Early numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that from December 2019 to December 2020, overdose deaths overall rose by nearly 30 percent. In total, there were at least 93,331 deaths from overdoses alone across the country last year.

“Alaska’s rate has increased by 11.6 percent,” Welton said. “And that’s for all drugs. That can be opiates, meth, cocaine, poly substance use disorders.

“There is a huge increase,” Welton continued, adding that one of the major concerns is fentanyl and other drugs laced with it. “And that also matches the concern we have with emergency room visits for overdoses.

“We know it’s on the streets; we know its potency is really high,” she said, “and it is making a huge impact.”

Emergency overdose visits happened in every region of Alaska last year, but Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna region, the Southeast and Gulf Coast saw the large increases in reports. Compared to 2020, the average number of weekly emergency department overdose visits statewide more than doubled from March 1 to May 29 of this year.

The Division of Public Health has also been keeping track of emergency department visits this year. Early data shows that in 2019, the statewide rate of overdose-related emergency department visits was 16.4 per 10,000 visits. In 2020 that rate of rose to 26 per 10,000, and rose to 35.4 in 2021, through July. Overdose deaths have also continued to increase in that same time frame.

Welton, however, said there are two main things people can do to help prevent deadly overdoses. First of all, Alaskans can carry Naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, in case they need to administer it in an emergency situation arises. This is a nasal spray that temporarily reverses the effects of an overdose, giving a person more time to be taken to a hospital. Various providers across the state will give a person a Narcan kit to have on hand.

Second, a fentanyl test strip – also available from different programs around Alaska – should be used if there’s any question about the purity of a drug. Several academic journals have touted fentanyl test strips as a viable option for harm reduction among those who use drugs.

“An overdose is so fast, as far as repressing breathing,” Welton said. “If we can get the Narcan kits into everybody’s hands, that’s going to be a huge thing. We want to get them everywhere.”

Click here to see a list of providers offering Narcan kits free of charge as part of Project HOPE. Those interested can also email projecthope@alaska.gov to request a free kit.

To get more information from the Office of Substance Misuse and Addition Prevention, head to this Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, help is available. Resources can be found by calling Alaska 211 or visiting the State of Alaska’s website to find treatment options.

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